We are truly living in a golden age of comic book-based television. From broadcast to cable to streaming, shows featuring an array of superheroes are everywhere. The CW alone could field a superhero show each night of the week now that Black Lightning, the network’s fifth DC Comics-based show from super producer Greg Berlanti, is finally ready for prime time. Starring Cress Williams as the titular hero, and created by the husband-and-wife producing team of Salim and Mara Brock Akil, Black Lightning — debuting tonight at 9pm — has already emerged as the best show on The CW, and is possibly the best superhero show of the genre.
Black Lightning was created by Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden in 1977 and is DC Comics’ first African American superhero. The television show is a very faithful adaptation of the original comics, retaining many of the elements established for four decades: Jefferson Pierce is a family man and principal of Garfield High School, his closest confidant is also his superhero tailor Peter Gambi (James Remar), and his arch nemesis is Tobias Whale (Krondon), leader of the infamous 100 gang.
Where Black Lightning differs from its Berlanti-verse brethren is that this is not an origin story. In fact, the first episode is titled “The Resurrection” and picks up with our hero “retired” from crimefighting for seven years. Much of the drama revolves around Jefferson’s promise to his ex-wife Lynn (Christine Adams) to hang up the tights and take care of their daughters Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain). The idea of rebirth and return fascinated the Akils from the beginning.
In the press room during the “DC in D.C.” event hosted by Warner Brothers Television at the Newseum in Washington, the show’s creators were asked about the decision to start with the comeback. “Do you come back [to being a superhero] knowing what being Black Lightning has taken from you in the past,” asked Salim Akil. “How do you get back to that?”
“I always thought of [the show] as an origin story,” added Mara Brock Akil, “meaning when you decide when you want to get into the fight or accept your powers and to me, it’s almost like the character has two origin stories.”
There is a high probability we may get flashbacks to the first origin anyway. “Maybe one day,” the Akils teased. Even in the premiere, there is security cam footage of a younger, clean shaven Black Lightning, sporting his early-2000s era costume.
Where the show shines the brightest is in its nuanced depiction of being Black in contemporary America. This is the main reason that disconnecting it from the other CW shows works to its benefit. Though Freeland is a fictional city, it feels like a real urban setting. It could be Atlanta, Georgia (where it’s filmed) or Richmond, Virginia (which was reportedly an inspiration for the setting). When the producers of Arrow intimated they would be incorporating Black Lives Matter into the show’s current season, it was rightfully met with disdain on the internet.
Now that Black Lightning is on the air, it demonstrates how necessary it is to have the right voices behind the scenes to get the subject matter right. It matters that the show is conceived, written, and directed by the Akils because there is an authenticity to these voices that would be lacking from the pen of another writer. Characters that might come off as stereotypical feel real. The Blackness of Black Lightning is unapologetic, not monolithic.
Like his comic book counterpart, Jefferson Pierce is an educator. And it was important to maintain this aspect of the comics for the show’s creators. “I just thought it was a great way to stay connected to the community,” said Salim. “This man [Jefferson Pierce] walking through the school and communicating and being concerned with the kids, I wanted that to be an image that we put out into the culture so that people know this exists.”
“[Seeing a superhero who’s also a principal] is pretty awesome,” added Mara. “They’re the real heroes.”
Black Lightning is unlike anything The CW has ever put on air. From the music to the cinematography to the performances, this show isn’t just great, it’s electrifying.